After years as one of Houston’s most popular food trucks, Pi Pizza chef Anthony Calleo partnered with restaurateur Lee Ellis and opened a brick-and-mortar location on trendy Heights Boulevard last month. The pie trade was swell for the first couple of weeks. Rave online reviews flowed in for the restaurant’s mac n’ cheese ball appetizers, the venison-topped Outdoorsman pie, its menu of craft beers, wine, and cocktails, and liquor-tinged desserts from Lee’s Creamery, one of Ellis’s other Cherry Pie Hospitality restaurants.
It had been a long time coming for Calleo, who recently told the Houston Chronicle he had spent eighteen months tinkering with his pizza dough recipe before he ever dared open his food truck, which has been parked in front of several of the city’s hippest bars and nightspots for the past four years.
And then came the gun ruckus. A Facebook user by the name of Kyle Kelly noticed that Ellis had placed a sign in the window banning firearms from the premises, and Kelly unloaded online with a one-star review of the pizzeria. Kelly’s review, which has since been taken down, stated that he would not (and did not) spend a penny in a restaurant that barred him from bringing in a gun with him.
“He wrote a one-star review and it was nothing about the pizza,” Ellis tells Texas Monthly. “He never even stepped over the threshold.” Ellis deemed that unfair, and in one of his responses—written under the Pi Pizza Facebook account—he suggested that Kelly could “FO” if he didn’t like the policy. In another post, Ellis called Kelly an “ignorant idiot.” “I told him to FO,” Ellis says. “I could have said f— off but I didn’t. I told him he could interpret it however he wanted to.”
Kelly took a screenshot of the exchange and hustled it over to the message boards at Texas3006.com, and within hours gun enthusiasts from across Texas and America were one-starring Pi Pizza on Yelp, Google and Facebook.
The pizzeria’s Facebook page had close to a thousand one-star reviews, many, if not most, written by people who never so much as tasted a single crust of Pi Pizza. Meanwhile, Calleo asked for the support of Pi lovers, and within twenty-four hours the restaurant had garnered 1,300 five-star reviews. (The review section of the Facebook page has since been disabled, and the Yelp page is in “Active cleanup alert” status. Google has told Ellis that unless the review has the word “gun” in it, the review will stay up.)
The negative reviews rose to truly epic, and utterly false, heights. Reviewers claimed that servers had track marks on their arms. The clientele was reported to consist largely of visibly affiliated gang members. Someone claimed that Calleo dripped snot onto a pizza, and his private information was posted online. Someone even made the claim that it was the likes of Pi Pizza who “allowed” the mass shooting that occurred about ten miles across Houston last week to occur.
Another reviewer claimed that his car had been broken into and his gun stolen while he was in the restaurant. “I Googled the guy, and I don’t think he even lives in Texas,” Ellis says. “They just went really over the top.”
One gun advocate took the time to craft an apology letter for Ellis to cut, paste and endorse. Needless to say, Ellis didn’t take him up on the offer. “I’m not apologizing for anything. I’m not the one who did anything wrong.”
Ellis says he decided to take down the Facebook review section not because Pi’s rating might sink, but because he didn’t want his page to be used as a platform for gun enthusiasts. “I didn’t want to help their cause,” he says. “It wasn’t hurting us. I don’t want to promote their cause, because I don’t think they have a cause.”
Ellis, the brother of a long-time cop, says he has no issue with guns per se, but he doesn’t think they belong in places where liquor is sold, such as Pi Pizza. “If I have to post a sign now to say that, well, that’s why the sign is up,” he says, then noting that his other businesses Lee’s Petite Sweets and Lee’s Chicken and Donuts don’t have signs up because they don’t offer liquor.
Legal action—a lawsuit for tortious interference—could be in the cards, Ellis says. “The issue is not about guns. We don’t want them in our building because we serve liquor. It’s all about the false reviews. My attorney tells me we absolutely have a case.”
Meanwhile, Calleo and Ellis are working up an “FO Pizza” recipe, a cheeseburger pizza that is on the menu permanently, the proceeds of which will be donated police and fire department charity the 100 Club.